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Heidi Shaffer, Published December 27 2010

Fargo snow removal evolves as city grows

When Tony Fennel started 21 years ago as a Fargo snowplow operator, 32nd Avenue South was still a gravel road.

“The city has grown so much,” said Fennel, who is now street supervisor.

As Fargo’s size spread, street crews also had to change their snow-fighting strategy to clear more roads with few additions in staff or equipment.

Today, new technology and tactics are allowing the city to do more with less, said Ben Dow, director of public works.

Each time it snows, crews plow 466 miles of city streets, totaling 1,886 miles of lanes. In 2000, Fargo had just 321 miles of paved streets, according to city financial documents.

Those roads are cleared with 27 pieces of equipment, and the street department’s crew of 42 operators don’t rest until it’s done, Dow said.

“It’s a 24-hour process from one end of town to the other,” Fennel said.

Preparations for a storm generally begin two days before the flakes start to fall. So far this year, road crews and equipment have been out several times as 34.3 inches of snow has fallen on Fargo this winter – nearly 21 inches above normal for this time of year.

The city contracts a weather service to give them knowledge of incoming storms, allowing time to begin pre-treating roads with a salt brine solution and beet juice, which acts as a barrier between pavement and snow, Dow said.

The solution prevents snow from bonding and forming ice on the roadway, cutting down on the need to salt and sand the roads later, Dow said.

Once the snow begins to fall, the first course of action is to keep primary routes clear. Plows are out as soon as accumulation reaches about an inch, Dow said.

After clearing arterial and collector roads, crews move efforts to neighborhoods, he said.

Keeping routes open – even just a lane or two – during heavy snowfall cuts down on work later, Dow said.

“If we leave 19th Avenue, it takes a whole day to reopen it,” he said.

As Fargo grew, so did the widths of its roads, Dow said. To cover more ground, the city has added side “wings” on plow equipment to help clear wider streets.

“Now one truck is doing the work of two,” Fennel said.

This year is the first winter the department is taking advantage of a new traffic camera system, which allows foremen to watch road conditions in about 20 locations around the city.

“I can see if a section is starting to blow in instead of sending a supervisor out,” Dow said.

Generally crews can make it through primary routes in eight hours during the day and six hours at night after a 6-inch snowfall, Dow said. Plowing at night goes faster because there is less traffic for crews to contend with, he said.

Drivers use emergency vehicle pre-emption de­vices to help cut down on plow times. The technology, which is also employed by fire trucks and ambulances, changes traffic signals and allows the trucks to stay together, Dow said.

Plows began using the devices last year and have shaved off about four hours of plow time along primary routes, Dow said.

“That’s four hours of man power and fuel,” he said. “It is a significant cost savings.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511